Witness to the History of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Berkeley

Forty-three years ago I arrived to Berkeley to begin my PhD in agricultural and resource economics [ARE], and without realizing it, I witnessed the evolution of this great department. As the department faces new challenges, I realized that the evolution of ARE has important lessons for its future and for university departments in general.

One important lesson from history tells us that the research agenda and teaching emphasis of a department is in constant motion. When ARE was founded after the Giannini gift in 1928, the emphasis was on farm management to help farmers make better decisions. Speaking withHarry Wellman, the former Chair of ARE, Dean of the College of Agriculture, and eventual President of UC system (he has two buildings named after him), I learned that in the 1930s the department
introduced research in agricultural markets and policy.

John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the first graduates of the department, was an outstanding scholar of both areas. Agricultural policy mixed institutional and analytical approaches, but Wellman added the third dimension of quantitative analysis. In the 1940s, he brought on George Kuznets, a psychologist at Stanford, to introduce statistics into the study of agricultural economics. As we know, Kuznets is a legend; he significantly influenced the career of Zvi Griliches, Yair Mundlak, and Arnold Zellner. With Kuznets, and later with Ivan Lee, econometrics became a mainstay of the department. After WWII, the department brought on Ray Bressler and Sidney Hoos to study marketing, cooperatives, and industrial organizations in agriculture. In the 1960s, the department realized the importance of the environmental movement and hired Ciriacy-Wantrup, who became a leading thinker of environmental economics and started this area of emphasis in the department. In the late 1960s, the department hired Alain de Janvry, anddejanvryunintentionally provided the foray to a world-class development economics program (especially once Irma Adelman joined the department). The department also started the area of research in international economics with the hiring of Andy Schmitz. While Kuznets, Lee, and Boles (and later George Judge) emphasized quantitative tools, deJanvry, Schmitz, and Adelman also emphasized contributions to economic theory. The department has also made important hires in labor and nutrition. We have seen how, during the 2nd half of the 20th century, the department moved from farm management to issues of environment, development, trade, and agricultural markets.

When I arrived in 1973, the existence of the department was in doubt, several faculty members were denied tenure, and the morale was quite low. In retrospect, one of the main reasons for the decline of the department during the period before I arrived was that there was under-emphasis on publishing in referee journals and faculty were hired to maintain existing lines of research (especially in marketing) rather than break new ground. On the positive side, there was awareness of the problems and debate of where to go. Students and faculty were meeting daily in the coffee room[1]. Professor Andy Schmitz, who was an original thinker as well as eccentric and charming farm boy from Canada, suggested a change in direction of the department, with an emphasis on research. He claimed that agricultural economists are economists first and that they must publish in mainstream economics journals. Indeed, several of us mostly emphasized publication in economics journals, were hardly involved in any activities of agricultural economics department, and mostly used some agricultural applications to emphasize basic economic principles. This strategy was very useful for Andy Schmitz and Richard Just, and some of the students like myself, but not for the long-term survival of the department. The Chair of the department at the time was Jim Boles, who was a computer wiz and avid sailor and an unsung hero in my eyes. One reason is that under his leadership the department received five new faculty positions, and the other is that he appreciated that I published papers in mainstream economic journals on the economics of manure and encouraged me to apply to a Position in ARE.

Dr. Boles was excited about the hiring of Gordon Rausser as the Chair of the
department in 1978. Gordon got his PhD at UC Davis, was a professor at Harvard Business School, and had his feet both in reality of agriculture and the frontier of economics. Gordon and the emerging leadership of the department (Just, Schmitz, Adelmen, and deJanvry) realized that to survive, we must maintain excellence in terms of rausserpublication in top journals, faculty selection and promotion. In particular, the department must avoid tenure recommendations that then get denied by the University due to insufficient quality. But Rausser also realized that being another economics department in Berkeley (after the department of economics and the business school) was not in the interest of anyone. While we must continue to publish in top journals, to excel we needed to emphasize agricultural and resource topics in our research and to be actively involved in the agricultural and resource economics communities. When Rausser learned that Richard Just and I had a fun project estimating demand for basketball tickets, he told us that the department wouldn’t fund it. He invited the leaders of the agricultural profession to Berkeley and demanded us to present papers at agricultural economics meetings. Rausser and the Chairs that followed him also emphasized transparency in discussion, including having longer retreats where we could build camaraderie and think collectively of our direction and future. This focus on openness and collaboration allowed us to overcome significant changes in the financial situation of the department and a smooth transition from the punchcard era to the internet era. The strategy really worked – and the department has since become the top ranked agricultural and resource economicsdepartment by the 2010 Natural Research Council report.

As a faculty member, I was asked to teach agricultural policy at the department, and to excel I would need to incorporate the unique features of agricultural systems within advanced economic decision-making. Once in a while, I could publish in top-notch, mainstream journals, but my main impact would come from agricultural and environmental economics journals – with an occasional homerun in Science. This was a shared experience of our leading environmental economists. Together, agricultural economists developed concepts that also enriched the general field of economics. For example, agricultural economists were at the frontier of the study of technology adoption, the application of cost-benefit analysis, the applied study of risk, and the economic valuation of non-market goods (e.g. environmental quality). Our research also touches on controversial issues, like GMOs, design of water systems, and climate change policies. Agricultural economics, like business administration and engineering, places much emphasis on operational outcomes. Compared to mainstream economics, there is more focus on methods for planning and prediction.

ARE group 2

Towards the end the millennium, the University put pressure on departments to improve utilization of resources. One positive outcome was the creation of cross-listed classes and areas of study. Today, at the graduate level, we have a strong program with the business school on energy economics and a joint field of development economics with the department of economics. Many of our undergraduate classes are cross-listed with the department of economics. We contribute to multi-disciplinary programs like the MDP and teach at the School of Public Policy. At the same time, we continue to be part of the Giannini Foundation for agricultural economics together with our peers at UC Davis and Riverside, and we have a popular publication “ARE Update”. One hallmark of ARE since I have been here is the collaboration between students and faculty resulting in joint papers and obtaining significant grants. While some departments have a philosophy of throwing their students to the water and see who can swim, in ARE we teach them how to swim and the result is that we were able to outperform departments with two or three times our faculty. And, many of our students start their career with a rich resume and much more than a job market paper.

As we grow through intergenerational change, the big challenge is how to maintain the delicate balance between becoming mainstream economists and emphasizing the growing need of the environment and agriculture. While publishing in the major economics journals is perceived as the only avenue to stardom, we need to emphasize and recognize that there are many ways to reach it. The history of the department shows us that there are great rewards in solving real-world problems of agriculture and natural resource management and being recognized as a leading expert in a specific field. Fortunately, real contributions are easily found through Google Scholar and Web of Science even when published in specialty journals. Employment opportunities are diverse and recognize excellence in creatively addressing major problems using multiple methods, including theory, econometrics, simulation, and historical analysis. As we look forward, we need to encourage young faculty to seek opportunities presented by real-world challenges and reward them for creative solutions that contribute to change. We also have to emphasize that maintaining quality, transparency, and collaboration are paramount for success. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue solutions to major societal problems and we should embrace it as the next chapter of our department’s history unfolds.

ARE group

[1] The famous coffee room in 325 Giannini where faculty and students played bridge and discussed economics, was deemed by the administration as an inefficient use of space and was converted. The communication and camaraderie between faculty and students suffered.

Reorganizing Berkeley (with emphasis on CNR)

Rumors have been circling for some time about an imminent reorganization of the Berkeley campus structure. Our tenuous financial situation coupled with the widely held perception that our current state is constraining us from reaching our full potential, suggest that this may be an opportune time for change. In the last 30+ years I have been on campus, I have heard numerous proposals for such organizational changes but now, it looks as though they might happen. Yet change is a double-edged sword that has to be introduced thoughtfully, especially in a complex and volatile place like Berkeley, where there is much to lose.

If we consider a major change, everything needs to be on the table. The design of the process must require careful planning and even more careful execution. Even though time might be of the essence, the process should not be rushed and the design must be flexible and adaptive. The administration and the Senate surely will utilize all of the formal procedures for change, but they will need to develop mechanisms that will assure transparency and inclusiveness in the decision-making process. The Berkeley Blog provides a forum for the campus to express opinions and to start a dialogue, and I believe that the discussion on reorganization should be open, hence this post.

The objective of the reorganization is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the campus so we can get more out of the resources we have, and increase our resource base so that Berkeley can enhance its education, research and outreach programs on solid financial footing. The design of the reorganization is very challenging, as it needs to be accepted by a diverse array of stakeholders and respect the rights of myriad groups. I present below some ideas that may be useful in the discussion of the structural redesign.

Because of the scale of the campus, much of the management has to be done in smaller units, which are the colleges and the schools. Every faculty member is expected to engage in research, teaching and public service, and the teaching should include both undergraduate and graduate courses. To me, the Berkeley structure is asymmetric. We have the mammoth College of Letters and Sciences, and several mid-sized colleges (Engineering, Business, CNR) all having their own undergraduate, masters, and PhD programs. Then there are many smaller professional schools that mostly emphasize a professional masters degree. It seems to me that colleges that offer undergraduates, masters and PhD programs with ~200 faculty members can be large enough to take advantage of economics of scale in administration, development and infrastructure, but small enough to retain a distinct identity that may appeal to students and donors. Each of these colleges should have their own undergraduate (at least upper division courses), masters and PhD programs[1]. A key part of this initiative is to include the professional schools as de facto departments within a few colleges (so they can keep their distinction of the ‘School of XYZ’). Here are of my proposals:

The first is an obvious one, at least to me. Berkeley should have a College of Media and Information that includes the Schools of Information, Journalism, and a new department of New Media that will address the content and art of cinematography, TV, games and social media. Berkeley already has an undergraduate major in New Media, with very few permanent faculty assigned, but rather faculty that study issues related to media. I think that there are incredible opportunities for collaboration between the new department of New Media, and the Department of Information and Journalism. I am sure that some faculty from the Colleges of Letters and Science, Engineering and Business would be interested in a joint appointment. I believe that with the right leadership, Berkeley, with our proximity to Pixar and Silicon Valley, will be able to attract the right external support, as this can be an area of growth for the campus that will be more than able to pay for itself.

Second, a College of Health, Education and Policy (CHEP). This college may include the Schools of Public Health, Social Welfare, Education, Optometry, and perhaps even Public Policy. These are all professional schools in related areas; together they can produce a much stronger undergraduate program, and in the long run, strengthen their PhD programs. Since the School of Public Policy has strong emphases on issues on health and educational welfare, its collaboration with the other schools within this college can be very fruitful. But obviously, the School of Public Policy must continue to address other issues like environment and national security, so the new colleges must not be closed silos, but rather, open structures that interact with other units on campus.

Now I come to my college: the College of Natural Resources. It originated from the schools of agriculture and forestry, and includes biologists, agriculturalists, economists, and ecologists. One way forward is to form a new School of life sciences and the environment – uniting CNR with the biology units in the College of Letters and Science. Despite not having a hospital, Berkeley is a powerhouse in the life sciences and its prestige is growing, especially with the discovery of gene editing by Jennifer Doudna, the recent Nobel Prize awarded to Randy Schechtman and centers such as the Energy Biosciences Institute. There are economics of scale and opportunities to provide better integrated education and research by bringing all of the biological departments under one roof. Or perhaps it is even better to establish a College of Biology (CB), which includes the biologists in L&S and CNR, and a separate college, which I would call the College of Sustainable Development (CSD)[2]. This college would include all of the non-biology CNR faculty, for example soil scientists, foresters, social scientists, and some ecologists in ESPM as well as the Department of Agricultural Economics and Management, the Energy and Resources Group, the School of Environmental Design (SED)[3], and other units interested in environment and international development. The CSD would bring together all the units working on land issues in agriculture, forestry and the urban sector – scholars who work on parks, sustainable cities and agriculture in both developed and developing countries. It would serve as a center for research on climate change, biodiversity, food systems, alternative energy, land use, and urban design. It will combine both conceptual and data-driven modeling with behavioral sciences. Having a college like this one would be appealing to many donors and we could expand significantly many professional masters’ programs, such as the Master of Development Practice.

CNR is the link to Berkeley’s history and mission as a land grant university especially with its commitment to address issues of agriculture, natural resources, and the environment and extend knowledge to practitioners. Whatever the new configuration of CNR, Berkeley should not only maintain, but also expand its cooperative extension program. Berkeley is a state university with a global reach. Berkeley should aim to establish a global extension program to complement its research and education in the many areas of sustainable development. Such an expansion shouldn’t draw on existing resources, but can attract new sources of funds.

I don’t cover the rest of campus, but I’d like to emphasize that a key point in this design is that different colleges would have significant collaboration between them. For example, CSD would work very closely with CB and CHEP as well as with its counterparts in the departments of Chemistry, Geography, Economics, Political Science, etc.

Each college will have its own educational and research programs but there will be significant cross-campus collaboration. I see colleges, and especially its departments, as the home base to faculty and alumni, but recognize that much of the action will be across college boundaries. Such a framework will demand an administrative structure able to support movement and communication between units and allow for the creation of partnerships to emerge. In this light, common facilities and programs include the new campus in Richmond and an integrated lower division program will allow the colleges to specialize in their strengths while collaborating with other units to produce valuable joint research, teaching, and outreach.

It is clear that the reorganization of UC Berkeley is forthcoming. Our financial crisis presents us with the opportunity to grow and position ourselves for the 21st century – and in turn make larger contributions to California, the US, and the rest of the world.


[1] It is worthwhile to consider the idea to have one major undergraduate college that will be responsible for the education of freshmen and sophomore students with multiple tracks (Engineering, Life Sciences, Humanities, etc.) and the individual colleges would manage the upper division undergraduate teaching, and their faculty will serve the undergraduate division. I am unsure of the feasibility and viability of this plan, as it depends on the design and execution, but it is worthwhile to consider.

[2] Another possibility is to name it the College of Natural Resources and the Environment (and perhaps Development) to maintain the CNR connection. I believe that sustainable development is preferable because it can integrate both the environment and development programs together and it will project a new beginning and integration between programs that study the urban, rural, and wilderness settings.

[3] The SED includes the departments of city and regional planning, architecture and landscape architecture.

What is CNR (College of Natural Resources)?

Especially at the start of the semester, I am frequently asked by students, parents, sponsors, and otherwise curious people, what is the College of Natural Resources. I actually asked it myself; and over the years I think that I got the answer. The college embodies all the contradictions, practical deliberations, and social debate relating to agriculture, the environment, natural resources, and biotechnology.

The CNR, like any living thing, is a work in progress. It originated from the merger of two old-fashioned schools: the school of agriculture and the school of forestry that aimed to form a school with a cool name, the College of Natural Resources.

But this name is misleading. For instance, minerals are natural resources and we do not have a mining division, and humans are natural resources and we lack a focus on medicine. So perhaps the school should have been called the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, in short, CAFÉ. Which would have been cool but also realistic. This name would also be consistent with the structure of the college – it has four departments, agricultural resource economics (ARE), nutrition and toxicology (NST), plant and microbial biology (PMB) and environmental science policy and management (ESPM) (which is less cool than ESPN, the sports network, Go Bears!).

Recently, another unit, the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) joined the College, and ARE is adopting the Energy Institute, so the accurate name should be CAFEE! These developments tell us that schools are living things: they can be re-organized and adapt to the changing times. I am sure that structures will change, but research on these topics will continue here at Berkeley.

While the content of CNR is evolving around several themes, a key element of its identify is that it is a professional school, which means that it emphasizes finding solutions to problems rather than only understanding and analyzing various phenomena. To some extent CNR is to biology what engineering is to science. I believe that the 21st century will be the century of life sciences and the bioeconomy, and thus the College is set for success if we are opportunistic, and with that our students will be employable.

While here, students benefit from an endearing feature of CNR: it is student-friendly. In our smaller college, faculty are approachable and students form collaborative networks. Another worthy feature of the college is having cooperative extension specialists. These are researchers who link the research at Berkeley with the needs of the practitioners in the field (farm advisors, policy makers, farmers and foresters, NGOs, etc). I have a 15% appointment as a specialist, and have enjoyed the real world inspiration that it has provided me.

The current challenge of the College is to develop a unique entity, and loyalty among faculty, alumna, and students. The loyalty of faculty members traditionally is to their departments. When I was a graduate student and young faculty member, I knew and loved ARE. It has a great tradition, being the best agricultural economics department in the world (at least in our minds and in the NRC survey). But, I did not know, nor did I care, in which college I worked. The dean of the college was a problem of the chair and the college bureaucracy, a barrier to the smooth flow of resources from different sources to the department.

All this has changed gradually. Over the years CNR has built an identity for itself by establishing several common undergraduate programs, various centers of research, a summer program (Beahrs ELP), a masters program (MDP), and an international program. While the college is rooted in California, its research and education program address global issues – and it has become a hub for international development research and outreach for the Berkeley campus.

But the real driver that led to the strengthening of the College has been economies of scale; administrative functions have moved from the department to the college and now to the university, and while the quality of service has sometimes declined (at least in my humble opinion), I am an optimist and believe that they will figure it out before I retire. It seems, or I hope, that centralization of functions has saved resources and one of the undisputed benefits of it is that we have a central development fundraising office. The office has already accomplished quite a lot.

Another benefit of the centralization is that we enhance conversation among and between disciplines. And as I got to know my college (and colleagues) better, I realized that it encompasses all the conflicts and challenges of agricultural and natural resource sciences. CNR has excellent plant biologists who advance frontiers in genetic engineering and agro-ecologists who develop new approaches to organic farming. Our agricultural economists that see an important role to corporations, market forces as well government regulations in agriculture, and our food institute that has embraced a naturalist, slow-food approach to agriculture and food systems. We have cutting edge research programs on climate change, food and nutrition, biodiversity, preservation, forestry, range management, water sciences, economic development, and alternative energy.

Most of the time we still operate in parallel in our separate silos, but slowly barriers are breaking and creative collaborations emerge. Researchers in CNR increasingly address cross-disciplinary topics — like sustainable development, climate change, and the bioeconomy — that tend to shake the disciplinary walls.

For the enlightened student, CNR can provide a rare exposure to alternative and opposing perspectives as well as a path to diverse career paths. In the college-wide programs like the ELP and the MDP, we try to provide a space to present alternative perspectives, and some graduate students have been creative in integrating differing approaches to address research challenges.

Universities are places where multiple paradigms coevolve and compete — and that is happening now in CNR. Because we emphasize alternative approaches to study nature, we can incorporate all of these views, achieve excellence through diversity, and let a thousand flowers bloom.